The Silence of Bishops

George Austin on a pack of cards

Journalists look for a story. Of course they do, that is why they are there. And for those following the proceedings of the General Synod it is not always easy. The temptation is to pick only on what an editor might print, even though it may be a minor issue on the greater canvas. In February there was no difficulty and a journalist as good as Ruth Gledhill (nominated as the Specialist Journalist of the Year) managed to have at least one story every day.

As the week progressed, phrases like ‘lunatics taking over the asylum’ and ‘collapsing like a pack of cards’ flitted across the mind. First, there was the degenderization of the Wise Men. We know from scripture that there were not necessarily three of them, just three gifts. But the Synod were told that ‘while it seems very unlikely that these Persian court officials were female,’ the possibility could not be excluded completely and therefore they should in future be described as Magi.

Another Times writer, Magnus Linklater, agreed and pointed out that the Knights of the Round Table might also have had females among them, since no one could tell under all that armour. And that maybe Launcelot was in reality a woman and the relationship with Guinevere a lesbian one. Linklater ought surely to be co-opted on to the Archbishops’ Council.

Then came the depersonalization of such roles as chairman – ‘chair’ of course in future. Forward-looking and in tune with the times, but alas not sufficiently so. What about the careless use of the word ‘lay’. Should not the otherwise deeply culture-conscious Synod also be aware that words change their meaning, and that ‘lay’ now has sexual connotations? To describe someone as ‘a good lay chair’ – or worse still ‘the best lay vice-chair’ – well, the Synod members really must get with it and be more in tune with modern society.

And could it be that the sexual mix of the Magi means that on their long journey they may possibly have ‘cohabited’? If so, the Synod would be glad for them to be given legal rights, which in itself seems quite justified. But one always has to read between the lines of synodical actions, and experience suggests that the approval of that which is not unreasonable can be the sneaky precursor of a further advance for the liberal agenda.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that a long and complicated local government bill was passing though Parliament. A Town Clerk involved in its production wished to divorce his wife and, knowing that the likelihood of anyone scrutinizing it was remote, slipped in a clause granting a decree absolute.

There is many a Synod report that has used that technique, and Some Issues in Human Sexuality was an obvious candidate for such a modus operandi. Although it was trailed as having a fairly traditional approach, the reality came when it was introduced by none other than the Bishop of Oxford. Of course he assured members that the report did not set out to change the Church’s view on gay relationships and was merely a guide to the debate.

Harries ingenuously suggested that while it might mean the Church would decide in the future to take a stricter approach, it could opt for a ‘more inclusive one’. He said the latter would lead to the introduction of services of blessing for lesbian and gay couples, but not yet. And surprise, surprise, there was a clever sentence in the report pointing out that of course some clergy will already feel it right to conduct such services. Not condemned, not forbidden, and therefore obviously permissible.

Alan Hamilton wrote a teasing ‘parliamentary sketch’ feature for The Times in which he marvelled at Harries’ explanation that the report ‘sought to set out a range of positions, and that searching questions should be asked about every position.’ Well, yes indeed.

Another speaker from Oxford thought that more guidance now on the subject of sin would be useful –‘not that we’re likely to want to be bound by it,’ she added. Hamilton ended, somewhat despairingly, ‘Having voted almost unanimously for the fudge of a catch-all report, the Church of England at least becomes like the rest of us,’ able to ‘carry on talking about sex tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that.’

The curious thing is that, according to the CofE Newspaper, no bishop other than Oxford joined in the debate. Were they told not to do so? Probably.

There was no such reticence in the debate on the plans for a radical reform in the funding of bishops and cathedrals. The Bishop of St Albans, Christopher Herbert, in a No-More-Mr-Nice-Guy speech, described the report as ‘clumsy, inept and brutal’, brutal because it ‘treats bishops with disdain.’

How could anyone treat bishops with disdain? Can we not admire the way in which some of his colleagues accepted at theological college Paul’s teaching that it was a ‘good thing’ to desire to be a bishop, and that they had to work hard at it – setting aside firmly held beliefs, not rocking the boat, and at being, as Shakespeare put it, ‘a feather for each wind that blows’. Do they not deserve the final reward of palace, chauffeur, gardener and a very generous expense allowance?

The bishops managed to achieve a draw in the debate on clergy employment rights. At last clergy who are sacked will be able to take their bishops to employment tribunals. But ‘capability procedures’ will be introduced whereby clergy deemed to be lazy or incompetent, or are considered ‘objectionable’ can be removed. No prizes will be awarded for guessing whom some bishops will deem to be objectionable.

No wonder the ecclesiastical pack of cards is collapsing. But at any rate the Synod seems aware of the problem, accepting a report presented by Bishop Graham Cray who was once vicar of a flourishing charismatic church just by York Minster. Christians are to be encouraged to meet in pubs, youth clubs or community centres to talk about God because ‘Sunday is no longer a church day for our society, but rather a family day or DIY day or sports club day or whatever people choose to do.’ If they choose the pub, I just hope Synod reminds the landlord that he too is expected to water down the beer.

Meanwhile, as the Synod talked, the Church carried on its business as best it could. A married vicar in Essex was reportedly suspended because he posted a nude photograph of himself on a website saying he was looking for a woman. Suspended? Is not this the inclusive Church where we are no longer bound by what the Bible describes as sin?

George Austin is a writer and a broadcaster.